31 Days Of Oscar – Spotlight on Hollywood’s Costume Queen Edith Head

31DaysOscar2013

This is my contribution to a mammoth blogathon event created by Paula (@Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club, Kellee (@IrishJayhawk66) of Outspoken and Freckled, and Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen that coincides with Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar, February 1 to March 3, 2013. It’ll be a month filled with fabulous tales and screen wonders.

I’ve agreed to do a post on the famed costume designer Edith Head as I love fashion and movies. Seems like an easy subject right? Well, not quite. I found myself quite stumped as to where to start. I mean she has contributed to over a thousand films! But I’m going to attempt to enlighten myself with this post, and hopefully you’d learn a bit more about her in the process.

EdithHeadBanner

Edith Head (October 28, 1897 – October 24, 1981)

  • Born Edith Claire Posener in San Bernardino, California, the daughter of Jewish parents, Max Posener and Anna E. Levy.
  • Received a bachelor of arts degree in letters and sciences with honors in French from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1919 and earned a master of arts degree in romance languages from Stanford University in 1920.
  • Attended the Chouinard Art College where she met her husband, Charles Head, who was the brother of one of her Chouinard classmates, Betty Head. Though they got a divorce in 1936, she kept her maiden name to continued to be known professionally as Edith Head until her death.
  • Before she entered the film industry, she was a high school teacher of French and art looking for a way to supplement her income.
  • Famous for wearing “sunglasses” they actually weren’t sunglasses in the beginning, but blue glass lenses on regular frames. It was a common trick for Costume Designers to look through blue lenses to get a sense of how the clothing would read on black and white film. Instead of looking through a single lens monocle as was common, Head had blue lenses put in normal frames. Later, she replaced the lenses with regular tinted lenses. [per DailyMischief.com]
  • Edith Head died of Bone Marrow Diseases on October 24, 1981 in Los Angeles.

The petite (5’1″) Edith got her start at Paramount Pictures as a sketch artist when she was only 27 years old in 1924. Believe it or not, she actually borrowed another student’s sketches for her job interview (wonder what happened to that girl?). By 1927, she started working on silent films. She might even had a hand in the first Oscar-winning film Wings, though she was uncredited. By the 1930s, she had already established herself as one of the industry’s leading costume designers.

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I think her key to her success could be that she consulted extensively with the female stars she worked with. I think that’s surely a lesson every costume designer should take to heart. I mean, it’s a mutually beneficial process when you keep the person you’re designing for in mind to make sure the outfit or dress is flattering on their figure. What worked for spindly Audrey Hepburn certainly wouldn’t have worked for the voluptuous Sophia Loren. It’s no wonder Edith became the favorite of the 40s and 50s leading ladies, such as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Sophia Loren, Barbara Stanwyck, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Natalie Wood, amongst others. They would personally requested to work with her so Paramount often had to ‘loan’ her out to other studios.

“A designer is only as good as the star who wears her clothes”
Edith Head

According to Encyclopedia.com, Edith described herself on one occasion as “a better politician than costume designer,” Head was expert at handling star temperament, preferring to yield ground on a neckline or dress length than engage in a battle of wills. The conservative, neutral-colored suits she perennially wore symbolized her willingness to suppress her individuality in the interests of her craft.

Edith_Hitchcock

Edith consulting with Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman

She worked at Paramount for 43 years until she went to Universal Pictures in 1967, it’s perhaps no coincidence that her move was prompted by her extensive collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, who had also moved to Universal, in 1960.

I used to do sketches when I was growing up, so I LOVE looking at sketches like these I found on this Fashion Journal. Apparently she released a book called How to Dress for Success, published by Random House in 1967.

EdithHeadSketches


“You can have anything you want if you dress for it.”

– Edith Head

A Legendary Career

During her 44 years as head designer at Paramount, and additional 14 years at Universal, Head worked on a total of well over a thousand films. She won a record of eight Oscars for Best Costume Design out of 35 nominations (unrivaled to this day).

EdithHead_Oscars

Here are her Oscar-winning costumes:

The Heiress, 1949

Edith_TheHeiress

Samson and Delilah, 1950

Edith_SamsonDelilah

All About Eve, 1950

Edith_AllAboutEve

The story goes that the silk cocktail dress that Bette Davis’s Margo wears in the Eve’s famous party scene didn’t fit her, in fact it slipped off her shoulders, causing Edith to freak out right before the scene was supposed to be shot. But Ms Davis pulled off the neckline, shook a shoulder, and said, “Don’t you like it better like this anyway?” [per RookieMag.com]

A Place in the Sun, 1951

Edith_APlaceInTheSun

Roman Holiday, 1953

Edith_RomanHoliday

Sabrina, 1954

Edith_Sabrina

Although Edith Head won an Oscar for Best Costumes, most of Audrey Hepburn’s “Parisian” ensembles were, in fact, designed by Hubert de Givenchy and chosen by the star herself. However, since the outfits were actually made in Edith Head’s Paramount Studios costume department, some felt that doing so created enough of a technicality to nominate Head, instead of Givenchy. And, indeed, since she refused to have her name alongside Givenchy’s in the credits, she was given credit for the costumes, even though the Academy’s votes were obviously for Hepburn’s attire. Head did not refuse the Oscar, however.
[per Wikipedia]

The Facts of Life, 1960

Edith_FactsofLife

The Sting, 1973

Edith_TheSting

What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage. We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not. We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer on the screen he’s become a different person.
– Edith Head

My personal five favorite Edith Head dresses

Picking just FIVE favorite Edith Head dresses are akin to Sophie’s Choice. So I’m not ranking these, I mean they are all equally exquisite, largely because of the elegant beauties who wore them. Edith certainly knew how to dress each woman in a way that they accentuate the best of her figure.

FaveEdithHeadDresses

Click on the image to see a larger version so you can see the details on these dresses

  1. Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina
    When I first beheld this amazingly beautiful dress I literally gasped. I mean the ornate details on the bodice and flowing skirt is nothing short of breathtaking.

  2. Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
    The classic little black dress (LBD). Worn to perfection dress by Audrey Hepburn, it actually gave her a bit of curves to her extremely slender figure. I think the accessories here are key, the pearls, tiara, large black sunglasses, and of course, the right ‘tude, made this look eternally chic.

  3. Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun
    I actually haven’t seen this film yet but I came across this photo a while back and I did a double take. It’s not the kind of dress I’d ever have the courage to wear, but Liz Taylor had the figure and gracefulness to pull it off beautifully. The cluster of little flowers on her chest, fitted bodice that accentuate her teeny-tiny waist, and the full organza skirt… this is a fairy tale dress fit for a Disney princess!

  4. Grace Kelly’s in Rear Window
    I guess when you’re working with an unbelievable beauty like miss Kelly, anything you put on her would look amazing. But Edith’s dresses are often as gorgeous as those who wore them, and this one is definitely one of them. It’s a simple dress yet so incredibly striking… I love that Edith pared down the accessories so the dress became the focal point.

  5. Ann Baxter in All About Eve
    There are certainly a boat-load of gorgeous costumes in this film, but for some reason I love this simple one that most people probably don’t remember, favoring the one that Bette Davis wore when she said her famous line, ‘It’s gonna be a bumpy night.’ What I like about this one is how understated ans sweet it is, but that sheer neckline is just sublime. It accentuates Ann’s petite figure beautifully, and it’s interesting that in this sweet, demure dress, she displayed her most cunning scheme to Celeste Holm’s character. It’s an intriguing dichotomy.

“Your dresses should be tight enough to show you’re a woman and loose enough to show you’re a lady.”
– Edith Head

Edith in Popular Culture

EdnaModeNot only did Edna created iconic gowns for Hollywood’s classic beauties, but she’s also got her own iconic look of her own with her round-rimmed glasses, short blunt cropped hair and full bangs and her ‘uniform’ of pencil skirt suit. She even made her mark in popular culture in The Incredibles, as Edna Mode, the fashion designer to the Supers, was based on Mrs. Head. [Another bit of trivia: she was voiced by director Brad Bird].

Edith became as big a star as the leading ladies she dressed. There’s even a play based on her which wrapped in L.A. in the Fall of 2010. A Conversation with Edith Head was brought to life by Susan Claassen — who bears a striking resemblance to the real life designer — in her one-woman show. See the ad below:

ConversationWithEdithHeadPlay

Edith was commemorated by a US 37 cents postage stamp, issued on February 25, 2003, depicting Ms Head at work.

Edith_PostageStamps

Check out this screen test of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, where Edith was interviewed on her process of creating the costumes for the film:

Books written by Edith:

  • With Jane Kesner Ardmore, The Dress Doctor, Boston, Massachusetts, 1959.
  • With Joe Hyams, How to Dress for Success, New York, 1967.
  • With Paddy Calistro, Edith Head’s Hollywood, New York, 1983.

There a Pinterest devoted to her sketches, see below:

Edith_holdingmanequins

I feel like I could never do Ms Head justice with my post. Having been reading all kinds of articles on her the past week, I’ve hugely admired her talents and work ethic and marveled on her beautiful costumes. Catherine Martin, the Oscar-winning costume designer for Moulin Rouge! whose work will be seen in the upcoming The Great Gatsby called Edith ‘the quintessential costume designer.’ Edith has become synonymous with fashion on film, and her amazing work left such a huge mark on Hollywood, more than any other person in her profession.

Per TCM.com, screen legend Bette Davis gave this eulogy at Edith’s funeral:

“A queen has left us, the queen of her profession. She will never be replaced. Her contribution to our industry in her field of design, her contribution to the taste of our town of Hollywood, her elegance as a person, her charms as a woman – none of us who worked with her will ever forgot. Goodbye, dear Edith. There will never be another you.”

What an icon… what a woman!


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I hope you’ve enjoyed this tribute.

Share your thoughts on Hollywood’s costume queen and feel free to share your own favorite Edith Head’s costumes.

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36 thoughts on “31 Days Of Oscar – Spotlight on Hollywood’s Costume Queen Edith Head

  1. Brilliant post Ruth. It’s funny you should write about her. I just watched a featurette on her that was a part of the “Roman Holiday” DVD. She had a brilliant eye for fashion but as you say, she also made sure that her wardrobes fit the actress or actor. I can imagine that’s a lot easier sounding that it really is to do. Anyway, as I’ve been going through Audrey Hepburn’s film library recently I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of Edith Head’s work. She was truly an amazing talent!

    • Hey thanks Keith! Wow, what a coincidence, that’s very cool. I like that featurette on Roman Holiday, that’s why I had to include that here. Brilliant is right, Keith, I’m amazed at how many films she’s been involved with. No wonder she was one of Audrey Hepburn’s — and many others — personal favorites!

        • Looking forward to it Keith! I don’t know if you know, but about a year ago or so I fell hard for Gregory Peck, so Roman Holiday is one of my all time fave films. I even did a special tribute on V-day, listing 59 reasons I loved that movie as it was released in 59 years ago then :D

          • Oh I knew you were fond of it and Peck! Same with my wife. I hadn’t seen it in a long time so as I was going through Audrey’s movies I figured it was a good time as any to catch back up with it. Glad I did.

  2. Great post Ruth! Of course Head is a personal fave of mine or anyone I suppose who is down for the cause of Old Hollywood glamour. Her list of credits is SO exhaustive I do not know where to begin. All of your picks are spot on and I would like to add a few more titles to the mix:

    FUNNY FACE – this movie was all about the fashion dahling and the scene where Audrey Hepburn is floating down the steps of Louvre with Winged Victory in the background — magical. And also the Parisian/Beatnik turtleneck slender trousers and flats – classic!

    TO CATCH A THIEF: Again we go to France this time the southern region. Beautiful costuming throughout. Grace Kelly was probably a designer’s dream. Just perfect!

    REAR WINDOW: The first dress we see Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) in is everything. I even have a doll dressed as she was in that scene!

    Love the topic Ruth and thanks for doing it justice!

    • Thanks Iba! I didn’t know where to begin either when I started… took me almost a week to work on this, it’s been fun learning about her. Glad you think I did Ms Head justice, that means a lot to me :D

      Thanks for the clips, I’ll watch ‘em tonight!

  3. Hi, Ruth and company:

    Edith was blessed with great, calibrated eyes, a sense of style and infinite knowledge of countless materials. How they looked, reflected light and flattered the myriad actresses fortunate enough to be adorned in her creations.

    Coco Chanel?… Bah! and Fie!

    Edith could spend five minutes talking to any sized or shaped actress or actor walking around a room and her studio. And have a folio of ideas, watercolor designs and selection of materials to work from the next day. Just from that woman’s or man’s posture, gait and carriage.

    In other words. Magic!

    Superb, little mentioned or noticed topic, Ruth! Very well and meticulously researched and presented, my friend.

    And remember Edna’s rules: “No Capes!” or “Hobo Suits!”

    • Amen Kevin! You said the word right there… magic! Edith said herself that costume designers are like magicians. I was so overwhelmed to do a tribute on her, astonished by her accomplishments and mesmerized by her designs. This is perhaps one of my longest posts ever, but Ms Edith deserves nothing less :D Thank you good sir!

    • Thanks very much Michael, that’s very sweet of you. I don’t do a lot of fashion-on-film posts here on my blog though I love clothes, so I figure I went all out with this one :D

  4. Love this post, Ruth! She had an amazing career, and many of her costumes have become iconic. My favorites would be Audrey Hepburn’s dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Grace Kelly’s dress in Rear Window, and Kim Novak’s gray suit in Vertigo.

    • Thanks Josh! I figure you’d appreciate it as you’re such an Oscar aficionado. So we share two favorites from Edith. That dress in Breakfast in Tiffany’s is eternally chic, simplicity never goes out of style!

    • Thanks Chris. Glad you enjoyed it, she really was a true icon and she let her work speak for itself. Quite a rarity in Hollywood these days.

  5. Whoa, nice piece, Ruth! You know I love fashion, nice to know more about the great person behind costume in movie industry. and I do love the wardrobes in Roman Holiday and Sabrina. Also the iconic black dress in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Great stuff!

    • I’ve been hoping you’d stop by Andina. I love fashion too, and you know I adore your fashion-in-film posts! Edith is definitely one of a kind, as rare as all the beautiful dresses she created. Hard to pick just five favorites, as she has sooo many great designs!

  6. Excellent post, Ruth, very detailed and comprehensive work with tons of great photos. It’s impossible to overstate Edith Head’s contribution to the movies..I can’t tell you how many times I’ve glanced at a film’s opening credits and seen her name appear. Was tickled to see you referenced Brad Bird’s awesome tribute of Edna Mode from one of my favorite movies, THE INCREDIBLES.

    • Hello Jeff. Thanks so much for the kind words. It’s amazing how many films she’s worked on, that lady’s got to be a workaholic. And not only that she consistently delivered such amazing work, too. Oh you can’t make a tribute on Ms Head and not mention Edna Mode, I wasn’t all that familiar about her when I saw The Incredibles but when I saw her photo I was like, WOW!

  7. Wow, awesome work here, Ruth! Edith Head is a name I have heard many times but I guess I never realized exactly how influential she was. It seems she had a part in so many classics back in the day. Love those behind the scenes pictures you dug up, too!

    • Thanks Eric! I’d think people might’ve heard of her even if they didn’t realize who she was. Even I was astonished about her influence in costume design, but she really was a legend. I’d think a lot of costume designers of today is still inspired by her.

  8. Great info in this awesome post Ruth! Lots of new-to-me stuff….I had no idea that’s why her glasses looked that way, but it makes sense. I think my very favorite of all of Head’s creations is the dress you have there from PLACE IN THE SUN …but she did amazing work every time. Thanks for this :)

    • Thanks Paula. I learned a lot too, I didn’t know about the glasses either. Glad you share my admiration for that flower dress, Taylor wore it so well.

  9. Really, Ruth! Is this all you could come up with?! :-D WONDERFUL POST! You knocked it out of the park with a great overview of a legendary career. Thanks so much for doing this as part of the blogathon.

    I can’t argue with your choices of Edith dresses, by the way. All gorgeous. I’d add every single thing Grace Kelly wore in To Catch a Thief too but I could probably list many, many more.

    Aurora

    • Thanks Aurora for the kind words. I was going to include Kelly’s blue dress in To Catch a Thief which was sublime, but I couldn’t remove anyone out of this top five. I think every single one of Edith’s creation is on the Honorable Mentions :D

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